Noise can be a big problem with open-plan classrooms, especially the high noise levels coming from the other classes sharing the same space.
This is particularly problematic when a class is trying to engage in critical listening activities where it is essential that the children can hear the new concepts they are being taught.
According to studies, classrooms should have acoustic properties that allow at least 90% of the useful information leaving a talker’s mouth to reach the ears of listeners.
Factors affecting this include distance from the speaker, noise in the classroom and reverberation time. For example, if a teacher has to increase the volume of their voice to be understood, there is an acoustic issue that needs to be addressed for both the teacher’s health and student’s learning outcomes.
Mumble By Design was launched in 2017 to address the issue of sound quality in large open plan spaces, a common feature of modern Australian classrooms. The company offers schools innovative practical designs to tackle sound quality issues in small and large open plan classrooms, communal spaces and libraries.
Mumble by Design’s director, Jacqui Hawksworth, said the company provides a range of products suitable for architects during their design phase as well as retro-fitting existing education facilities.
“When we go into a school, we first consider the hard surfaces, size of the room and what that room is being used for, then look at the ways in which we can create the optimal acoustics needed for students to concentrate and learn,” Hawksworth told The Educator.
“Research from Denmark that looks at classroom design shows a correlation between acoustics and student learning outcomes, and although it remains a work in progress, we’re looking very closely at what is working, and what isn’t.”
Hawksworth said based on the available research and its findings, acoustics standards should be mandatory in all schools. The problem, she says, is that very few schools seem to be paying attention to this critical area.
“In many cases, the cart is being put before the horse, in that new schools and classrooms are being built without properly considering the evidence-based architecture around acoustics and the different learning styles that students have,” she said.
“This means that many teachers are stepping into newly-built classrooms unsure of how to use them.”
‘It’s not just kids who suffer’
Mumble by Design has been working closely with the National Acoustics Laboratories (NAL), a world leader in hearing research and evidence-based innovation to improve hearing health.
The NAL is currently looking for schools to participate in a study to determine how physical learning spaces can be improved, not only for children with hearing disabilities but for all students at risk of ‘zoning out’ in the classroom due to poor acoustics.
Dr Kiri Mealings, a research scientist at NAL, said that high noise levels have a negative effect on children’s listening, memory, attention, motivation, reading, spelling, English, maths, and science results – and it’s not just kids who suffer.
“Excessive noise can also increase teachers’ blood pressure and stress levels and put them at risk of developing vocal problems from constantly having to raise their voice,” Mealings told The Educator.
Mealings said principals should think about acoustics before designing or retrofitting classrooms to ensure students learn successfully.
“In fact, before you do anything, why not consider joining us in a new research project looking into the effect of acoustics on student learning outcomes,” she said.
“We are currently looking for partner schools in NSW who are keen to find out more about how they can improve their classroom environments.”